In museums and galleries, and on the art market, African art has become sought after. But international recognition did not happen overnight, as many might assume. Instead, it came about through the concerted efforts of African art experts like the Bonhams specialist Helene Love-Allotey.
In sales at this auction house, Love-Allotey has quietly rewritten the rules of the booming African art market. In 2020, Love-Allotey breaks with the tradition of putting the most expensive lot on the cover of sales catalogs, placing Zanele Muholi Sasa, Bleecker, New York, 2016 of their “Somnyama Ngonyama” series on the front. She was also part of the team involved in the highly publicized sale of Ben Enwonwu’s painting in 1974. Tutu, long presumed lost. It ended up selling for $1.6 million, more than $1 million more than expected.
Based in London, Love-Allotey was appointed head of modern and contemporary African art sales at Bonhams last April. She previously joined the company in September 2015 as an art manager.
ART news spoke to Love-Allotey about the evolution of the African art market and why collectors are adding works by African artists and artists from the African diaspora to their collections.
What is important to you in the work you have done to bring more African art to market?
Africa is a huge continent. There are many countries, different ethnic groups and many artistic styles. We always try to ensure that as many countries as possible are represented in the sale to show the diversity of artistic practices.
Additionally, there are artists who have immigrated and continue to be influenced by their heritage in their practice, which is why we have expanded to include artists who identify with the African diaspora. I also try to champion the full cycle of African art and develop relationships with collectors and art lovers across Africa.
I was particularly happy to present Seth Dei’s collection in Ghana a few years ago. We exhibited the works in Accra. It was a great opportunity to showcase these important works before they went on sale. It was really a success, with great attendance, and everyone appreciated that we were cultivating these relationships.
What do you enjoy most about working at Bonhams?
It’s a unique environment to work in, and I don’t think anyone fully understands auction houses until they work there. I’m really lucky and privileged to be able to handle so many works of art on a daily basis and to be surrounded by them. I learn so much by seeing these works in person. I am able to work with such a variety of artists, and we are encouraged to explore our own passions. I’ve always wanted to introduce photography into our sales and it’s great to have been supported in this process.
What do you expect most from the next auction of modern and contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora in New York this Wednesday?
It’s a smaller curatorial lens, but we cover a wide range, from photography from postcolonial Mali to present-day South Africa, to abstract paintings and works on paper. This is the first time we have expanded to include the diaspora [in an African art sale at Bonhams]and I’m delighted to feature works by Aubrey Williams, who was born in Guyana and then moved to Britain.
It is also the first time that we include photography. The cover of the catalog features photographs on the front and back of works by Malick Sidibe and Samuel Fosso. We have quite a few works by photographers who have lived and worked in Mali. They faithfully portrayed the post-colonial energy of Bamako, which is known to this day as a hub of African photography.
We also have four paintings by Abdoulaye “Aboubia” Diarrassouba. Aboudia’s market is incredibly exciting, as we were selling his work for around £10,000 two years ago. Today, his works fetch over £150,000, as evidenced by our last two auctions in London and Paris.
We also have a first work of Skunder Boghossian and a portrait of Godwin Oluwole Omofemi, quite popular with contemporary art collectors at the moment.
What developments do you see in the market for African art and art from the African diaspora?
I have noticed in our field that many collectors are now interested in African art. Because people’s attitudes have started to change in recent years, especially when it comes to diversifying their collections, thinking about the history of art and its Eurocentric character. Many people seek to diversify their collections and consider acquiring works by African artists.
In our market, there is huge interest in African artists from the 1950s and 1960s, such as Papa Ibra Grand, Gerard SekotoSkunder Boghossian, and Demas Nwoko. They’ve done incredibly well in their careers and in their lives, but they’ve slipped under the radar and have only started to come back and get the attention they deserve.
[There] is also a huge explosion of interest in black figurative painting. There are many emerging artists from Ghana doing this, including Cornelius Annor. These artists have achieved incredible results, quite stunning considering the recent trend.
What is the reason why Ghanaian artists and art are in demand in the market?
For a while, the focus was on Lagos and the artists and galleries rising to prominence there. But recently the focus has shifted to Ghana, which is really interesting. I think it’s a credit to the amazing school of art in Kumasi [the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology] which has produced some of the most amazing artists. There are many people who champion art in Ghana, from Accra to Tamale. For example, Ibrahim Mahama has a space in Tamale, the SSCA Tamale [Savannah Center for Contemporary Art]which he uses to support local artists and education.
You also manage an Instagram account called African art history. What’s the most interesting thing you learned while performing it?
There is still not much attention paid to African art in art history education. The narrative focuses on the depiction of women and artists exploring queer themes. I was lucky enough to go to a university specializing in African art, so I use my account to make it more accessible and often collaborate with my professors to gain insight. Sometimes they use my research and writing for their lessons.
I always encourage people to visit our previews as it is an incredible opportunity to see so many African artworks in one space, from such a variety of different countries and eras. I think people often think of auction houses as just commercial, but there’s so much research and knowledge that goes into every sale. We spend the majority of our time developing in-depth catalogs, so it’s very educational.
I love taking my lessons from the auction house and making them more accessible through social media. I often feel like I wear two hats, commercial and educational, and I’m passionate about both.